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Granvillle T. Woods

Granville T. Woods, the greatest colored inventor in the history of the race and equal, if not superior, to any inventor in the country, is destined to revolutionize the mode of street car transit.
—Catholic Tribune (Cincinnati, Ohio), January 14, 1886

Woods's inventions were ... part of the everyday lives of millions of people. They rode street cars and subways powered by Woods's motors, supplied with electricity by Woods's electric transfer devices, and brought to safe stops by Woods's improved air brakes.
—Aaron A. Klein, The Hidden Contributors: Black Scientists and Inventors in America

Born on April 23, 1856 in Columbus, Ohio, Granville T. Woods attended school sporadically until he was ten years old and then went to work in a machine shop. At sixteen, his wanderlust led to the augmentation of his elementary engineering knowledge via a series of related jobs and eventual formal training at an eastern college.

Despite his engineering skill and credentials, it was obvious to him that advancement in these jobs was virtually nil. Taking a proactive approach, he formed his own company, Woods' Railway Telegraph Company, to produce and market his telegraph and other inventions.

During his lifetime, he held over thirty-five patents. More than a dozen of these patents were inventions for electric railways but most of them were focused on electrical control and distribution.

His most remarkable invention, however, was the induction telegraph, a system for communicating to and from moving trains. Woods successfully defended lawsuits against his patent—two by Thomas Edison and one by another inventor named Phelps. In the wake of his loss, Edison tried to offer Woods a job and buy his company, but his offer was flatly rejected. Edison upped the ante by offering Woods a partnership in one of his various companies, but Woods preferred to remain independent.

Woods's inventions include:
  • a device that coupled the function of the telephone and telegraph—purchased by Alexander Graham Bell
  • an air-brake system—purchased by George Westinghouse
  • the power system known as "the third rail"—a conductor of electricity set parallel to the subway's tracks
  • a thermostatically controlled egg incubator
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